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Review: 'Life of Pi' mesmerizes viewers

By John Nicholson
On December 5, 2012

Movies exist for many reasons, but one of them must be to create something as magical as "Life of Pi."

I don't invoke the M word very often, but "Life of Pi" is magical and mesmerizing. I'm even enthusiastic about its use of 3-D, which seems organic and genuinely enhances the film, something that doesn't happen with 3-D films very often.

Another overused word I've come to dislike is "immersive," yet it is the best way to describe the experience of watching "Life of Pi." Rather than observing it from a distance, we're made to feel part of its leading character's remarkable odyssey.

A shipwreck hurtles a 14-year-old boy named Piscine, or Pi for short, into the stormy Pacific with a few zoo animals, the most frightful among them a 450-pound hungry Bengal tiger, which is named Richard Parker. The boy and the tiger spend months at sea, hoping to be rescued. Can they possibly coexist? It sounds utterly absurd, of course, but Pi and the tiger take us on a wonderful journey that looks to the heavens for answers and meaning, while also celebrating the determination of mere mortals and that fifth gear that the human spirit somehow ignites even in the darkest hours, or especially in the darkest hours.

It's a great adventure story beautifully realized by director Ang Lee, cinematographer Claudio Miranda and a massive visual-effects team. The work of an army of CGI artists has negated the old adage that seeing is believing. Even though our rational mind may tell us that Richard Parker is not a real tiger, our movie-going consciousness says otherwise rather forcefully. They did an amazing job with the CGI tiger, switching between footage of a real tiger and the CGI one, almost seamlessly.

The film is based on the novel by Yann Martel. For many years it was deemed unfilmable; however, we know that modern filmography has changed the game quite a bit in just a few short years. We meet Pi as an adult (Irrfan Khan). He is recounting his life story to a writer who is hoping to find evidence of God in the world. Pi was raised as a Hindu but later discovers Christianity and Islam.

Lee chose to follow the book's now-and-then format. Often in films, the flashback gimmick can be detrimental, but it's not intrusively obstructive here, thanks largely to a soulful performance from Khan. Terrific newcomer Suraj Sharma portrays Young Pi.

While growing up in India, Pi was the son of a zookeeper. When the family, including Pi's mother and brother, books a ride on a ship to Canada, they bring along some of the animals. As the ship is going down, it's a mad scramble for the lifeboats.

"Life of Pi" is visually striking on sea, on land and on an island filled with thousands of meerkats. The chaotic commotion of ferocious seas is sharply contrasted with moments of dead quiet times when boy and beast are at rest, when the endless wet of the horizon is bathed only in the blue-white-silver shimmer bouncing off the moon.

Watching this film, I knew right away that it is going to be nominated at least, if not win, an Academy Award for best picture. It is one of those all-around great films that the judges can get behind. And someone please tell me that when they went into the movie theatre, they were a little upset that it wasn't a live action "Calvin and Hobbes" movie, like me. All silliness aside, I give the film 5 tiger claws out of 5.

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